Land Rights Mediation Takes Dramatic Approach

Promoting and Protecting Women's Rights and Land Requires Creative Solutions in Conflict Areas

There are a lot of minerals being extracted from the DRC, but the benefit of those minerals is not going to the people and they don't have a say on how those resources are being managed.

Rosalie Nezien, American Jewish World Service

Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) traditionally don’t own land. Women are workers of the land, but the idea of a woman owning a piece of land while her husband, son, or brother are alive is still foreign in many Congolese communities. American Jewish World Service (AJWS), whose mission is to end poverty and promote human rights, has been working with Congolese women to understand and demand their rights and mediate land disputes, using a little creativity and community theater to avoid conflict.

AJWS—an international development organization that funds community-based organizations—has been supporting programs in the DRC since 2002 when it sent disaster relief after the eruption of the Mt. Nyiragongo volcano. Today, it works primarily in the eastern region of the country, which is affected by recurrent upsurges in violence, exacerbated by conflicts over land and mineral resources. After completing its disaster response, AJWS began to focus on the conflict and sought to address the root causes of insecurity and violence, particularly for women and girls. The issue of land ownership, which is a major source of conflict for vulnerable groups including women and indigenous people, became a focal point of its work.

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A Family Debate Over Farm Ownership

ajws

In 2011, three Congolese women inherited a portion of their family farm located in the village of Buhutu in Masisi Territory in North Kivu Province. Two daughters and one granddaughter—Faida, Jeanne, and Sikujua—were given the land through a written will when their father passed away. Their two male brothers and two male cousins—Timothee, Muhirwa, Kasere and Krarfulu—refused to let the women inherite the land on the basis of customary law. They found the will unacceptable and insulting. They tried to threaten and coerce the women to hand over the land and tried to sell it, all to no avail. Timothee filed a complaint in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, asking a court to nullify the will and strip the women of the land.

Faida, Jeanne, and Sikujua were intimidated at the prospect of traveling to Goma to face their brothers and cousins in court. They heard about a Goma-based organization called Dynamique des Femmes Juristes (DFJ). DFJ, an AJWS grantee, provided the women with lawyers, who offered free legal counsel and accompaniment. The lawyers even visited Faida’s village, surveyed the farm land and collected more information through interviews with family members and with community chiefs, who had tried to mediate this issue in the beginning. In addition, between August 2013 and February 2014, DFJ paid for all court fees and the women’s transport to Goma to attend each court hearing, which amounted to $220.

After a very long legal process plagued by ongoing threats and intimidation by unsupportive relatives, Faida, Jeanne, and Sikujua received a favorable judgment on March 23, 2014, recognizing their right to the land per the written will. The court declared the brother’s legal action inadmissible and denied them any right to dispossess the women. This outcome would not have been possible if the women had not found DFJ. The cost and length of legal proceedings alone is often too overwhelming for poor rural women. DFJ’s legal and financial support enabled these women to keep what was rightfully theirs.

We have to get more women into places where decisions are made; where, if things are changed, we will see the difference in how women are treated.

Rosalie Nezien, American Jewish World Service